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Big Brother Is Watching: Should You Be Worried?

Big Brother Is Watching: Should You Be Worried?
Ariana Arghandewal

A Singapore Airlines passenger discovered a camera below his IFE but the airline claimed the cameras were not being used and that any privacy concerns were essentially unfounded. Then Buzzed published a story about American Airlines seats having seat back cameras as well. Followed by reports that Delta and United have the same feature installed. Of course, it did not go over well with travelers with legitimate privacy concerns. By now, we all know Big Brother is watching. So should we be concerned about seatback cameras?

That depends on whether you choose to believe the airlines’ PR line:

“[We’re] not considering using them”

The response from both American and Singapore Airlines was essentially the same. American Airlines claimed the cameras were installed by the manufacturer “for possible future use”, though they were not in use at the moment. Singapore Airlines had an almost identical response:

I find it hard to believe that IFE manufacturers would include cameras without the direction of the airlines. At the very least, it must have been a selling point. It’s not strange, in the current climate, for us to be filmed in our seats. Especially since our camera phones are getting tapped. But it is strange that the airline would pay for a security feature like an IFE camera and not use it. I call bull on this explanation. If the airline has no intention to use seatback cameras, why install them?

Privacy vs. Security

At the risk of sounding ultra-paranoid, I would point to the NSA surveillance program, which has been used for years to spy on American citizens as well as foreigners. As part of this mass surveillance program, law enforcement can tap into anyone’s cell phone, landline, and camera. On an airplane, where electronics are disabled, the workaround would be to tap into the seat back camera. So even if airlines choose not to utilize seat back cameras, they can still be hacked into for surveillance purposes by intelligence agencies. But do we need our privacy more than law enforcement might need to monitor criminal behavior?

“If you’re not doing anything wrong…”

One defense of these seat back cameras is, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” In itself, IFE cameras could be brushed off as another minor security measure meant to protect everyone on board. They could also be another step towards turning us into citizens of Oceania. Allowing small intrusions like this could lead to further privacy intrusions in the future.

So should you worry about seat back cameras possibly recording you? It’s definitely weird, even if you’re not “doing anything wrong.” It’s the principle – do we continue to accept privacy intrusions, whether by the government, corporations, or weirdos on the internet? At what point do we draw the line? On principle alone, I’m not ok with this. But I also know there’s nothing to be done about it.

We live in ultra-paranoid times where everything is a threat and the only way to deal with it is through constant surveillance. At least that’s what we’re told. We’ve become desensitized to privacy intrusions. If the idea of the NSA tapping into your laptop camera to watch you undress in your hotel room doesn’t freak you out, then the seat back cameras shouldn’t either. But if you’ve seen CitizenFour and have already applied a piece of tape over your laptop camera, you might want to bring an extra roll on your next flight.

How do you feel about airlines having seat back cameras?

[Image Source: Shutterstock]

View Comments (8)


  1. robsaw

    April 14, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    ” I find it hard to believe that IFE manufacturers would include cameras without the direction of the airlines. ”

    What a complete rubbish assertion. What that author “believes” is irrelevant. Conflated arguments that have no technical bearing on IF and HOW these IFE cameras could be used.

    A sensationalist, fact-devoid article – except for the fact that some IFE systems have cameras.

  2. amanuensis


    April 14, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    I think there is too much paranoia here. I think the screens came with cameras because they build them that way by default. It is a lot simpler to use off-the-shelf components than to not.

  3. VegasGambler

    April 15, 2019 at 12:30 am

    Except, the cameras are off, so they are not watching. This is clickbait nonsense.

  4. Agremeister

    April 15, 2019 at 1:29 am

    If you’re so concerned about the camera, just stick a little tape over it I suppose.

  5. Counsellor

    April 15, 2019 at 7:40 am

    That’s “NSA surveillance program”, not NASA surveillance program.

    The “No Such Agency” runs it, not the moon-shot folks.

  6. BJM

    April 15, 2019 at 10:50 am

    Personal mobile devices with built in cameras have allowed all of us to become Big Brother.

  7. bostontraveler

    April 15, 2019 at 11:12 am

    Do people actually think AA, the airline that famously took an olive out of a salad to save money, would pay extra for camera functionality?
    If the camera is there, it’s there for a reason. Whether AA or the NSA paid for it somebody eventually will use them. I’m super boring to watch in general, but particularly so on planes… Now if what I am working on is being recorded it opens a whole host of issues.
    Am I convinced the NSA or AA or SQ are actively doing this? No. Could they? Absolutely yes.

  8. mark_s

    May 5, 2019 at 9:29 am

    It is more complex than this rant/article presents it. There are a few distinct issues mentioned, some of which are more complicated.

    1. NSA/Government surveillance/collection: Even if the government were collecting wholesale data from all Americans, it is difficult to conceive a means by which to analyze it. It’s just too much data, and it’s data that is not particularly useful by itself. (You need to know who is saying what, not just what is being said, in order to draw useful conclusions. If you are looking for a needle in haystack, you need to reduce the amount of hay.) So, I doubt any human being is listening to your conversations, reading your emails, or looking at your internet activity.

    2. Misuse/abuse of capabilities and programs set up for disrupting terrorism: I think you can bet very safely on law enforcement misusing programs intended to disrupt terrorist plots by making use of authorities granted for that purpose to carry out investigations into criminal activities that may be bad things, but not terrorism. Then we start to have legitimate concerns about the Constitution and maintaining limits on government authority.

    1 + 2: I don’t buy the paranoid, “fight-the-power” view of the folks at Reason magazine, and I vividly remember 9/11, so I am supportive of reasonable government efforts to disrupt and/or destroy terrorist networks before they carry out attacks. At the same time, I am wary of overzealous officials, particularly in law enforcement, who are likely to misuse programs developed for countering terrorism.

    3. Seat-back cameras purchased by nosy airlines: First, there is a big distinction here between what an airline does and what the US government does. The Constitution defines and limits powers of government – not of the airlines. You are dealing with private sector entities in the airlines. I can see how these cameras would have some usefulness in security – if there is a reason to be suspicious about a passenger. However, the bad guys could always go to the lavatory and do what they need to do there, and talk about a place where you’re gonna have a hard time selling the idea of installing a security camera!!!! Overall, I think whatever perceived benefit there is from the seat-back camera is insufficient to warrant freaking many people out.

    4. People accepting surveillance, inspections, heavy-handed or intrusive rules: Yes, people are a bit more sheep-like in their acceptance of authority than would be ideal. In innocuous, but irritating example is that of the US Census, in which the forms ask questions not authorized or directed by the Constitution, but which Americans routinely comply with. Or, the acceptance of government programs that obviously violate Amendment X of the US Constitution. However, if you accept a rule or a surveillance/inspection practice for what you consider to be an appropriate reason, then you’re not really a 1984 double-plus-good type worker bee, you’re making a reasoned choice.

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